August in upstate New York can be downright hot, but the evenings start getting cooler. Those of us who are sensitive to natural-world tangibles and harbingers do not need a calendar or television weather man to know autumn is waiting in the wings.
Foliage on the many hardwood trees of this region is currently a mature, dominant green. But a few weeks from now the chlorophyll will retreat. The show of bright and brilliant colors will then make its 2009 debut.
Certain members of the cast will, however, leap into their role before the main event. Perhaps it is impetuousness. It might be wanderlust. Whatever the case, I’m inclined to think it is surely an overriding Providence that compels these select few, prematurely-yellowed and age-spotted, to disengage and play their role. Which brings me to a preliminary observation...
While it is the appointed destiny of all broad leaves here in northeastern America to die and fall to earth, it is worth noting that no two of the countless numbers of such leaves are exactly the same in appearance. What’s more, every leaf takes a different path on its first and final journey to the earth. I can not substantiate those claims based on extensive, bona fide scientific studies. That’s hardly necessary. I know such things from simply observing leaves.
And now we come to a particular observation, and a particular realization, that settled into my consciousness in this last month of August....
It happened that I was sitting outside on my backyard patio, with my wife, having a morning cup of coffee, enjoying the stillness of the rural world around us, and I looked up to see a single, pale leaf fall from the tall, green canopy of woods bordering my back yard. I say that I watched this leaf “fall” but it did not truly fall, at least not like, for example, I would fall were I to imagine myself a leaf and let go from a high tree branch. Rather, this leaf took its sweet time, wafting and floating downward. Then it actually did a stunning pirouette, flattened out, and waved, before settling gently onto the bricks of my patio, not far from where I sat.
I thought this leaf danced for me. Then I thought better. It occurred to me that the leaf danced its way to earth for its Creator, for His glory, and I was only privileged to see it.
Could this possibly be? Did God create the world so that every falling leaf would perform a unique dance for Him? You could call such a thought whimsey, or romanticism, or poetic license, but I’m persuaded that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this matter. I now believe that every leaf, no matter how common, is uniquely beautiful, and that leaves do not truly fall.
I think that I shall never see, a dance as beautiful, as that of a leaf falling gently from its tree.
From Dancing Leaves To...
...butchering chickens! That's the agrarian life for you:
Every year since 1998, my family has raised and butchered chickens to supply ourselves with wholesome, homegrown meat. We processed our 2009 flock of Cornish-Cross birds this last month. 62 of them. They were 8-1/2 weeks old and dressed out at an average weight of five pounds each. That’s a harvest of around 310 pounds. And Marlene canned 34 quarts of chicken stock to boot.
Marlene’s brother (he is 11 years older than her) and sister-in-law, who live a couple hours away, surprised us by stopping by when we were backyard butchering. My son Robert was killing, scalding, and plucking while I did the eviscerating. Only Marlene had time to stop and visit because, when it comes to butchering day, we menfolk are very focused on getting the job done. There's time for more formal visiting another day. But we did some informal visiting while staying on task, and our guests left after a short while to visit with others in the neighborhood.
Marlene’s brother, who remembers butchering chickens on the farm when he was a kid, seemed impressed with our operation. That is the usual reaction when people see the Whizbang Chicken Scalder and Whizbang Plucker. A couple days later, my sister-in-law sent an e-mail that began as follows:
”Your family Saturday morning was like watching a wonderful reality show about providing for yourselves and knowing where your food comes from—what is the Shaker expression, “hands to work, hearts to God?” You sure work hard, but seem to genuinely enjoy it and we know your hearts are with God.”That was a nice observation and concise summation of our Christian-agrarian lifestyle. I’ve always liked that Shaker motto. The Shakers were admirable agrarian examples in so many ways but, unfortunately, held to some unorthodox (even nutty) theological beliefs.
Marlene rented the DVD movie Miss Potter, which came out in 2006. I had never heard of it. We watched the movie together....twice. It is the story of Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit and other similar children’s books. The movie is, essentially, a love story (hence, my wife’s interest) but it reveals an aspect of the life of this Victorian-era English woman that I find particularly endearing.
Beatrix Potter came from a family of means and was home schooled. That she was homeschooled is one notable thing. She was an artist and loved to draw animals from a young age. In her mid-30s she tried to find a publisher for her Peter Rabbit book but no publisher was interested. So she self-published 250 copies of the book. That is another notable thing. After that, the book was picked up by a large publishing house and the rest is history. Beatrix Potter became wealthy from the several children’s books she wrote and illustrated. Now for the particularly endearing (to me, at least) part of the story...
What would you do if you became wealthy from the books you wrote? Personally, I’d buy a farm and land and take care of it. Well, it so happens that is exactly what Beatrix Potter did with her money. She began by purchasing Hill Top a farm in the Lake District of Scotland, an area where her family had vacationed for years. In time, Beatrix purchased 14 farms and 4,000 acres of land in that area. She purchased the land in order to preserve it from speculation and development. She was interested in preserving the ancient small-farm culture (called “fell farming” ) of the region. She herself became an avid sheep farmer. In some of the internet information about Beatrix Potter, she is referred to as a “countrywoman.” I like that term.
Beatrix Potter’s extensive land holdings went to a national trust when she died, so that the land would be preserved from development. Yes, that is endearing.
A couple of other interesting tidbits about Beatrix potter: She had a keen interest in mycology. And at 14 years of age she started keeping a diary... in a code of her own devising. Fifteen years after her death, the code was broken and her diaries were deciphered.
View Larger Map
The Google maps picture above is of my rural neighborhood. Our mini homestead is in the picture, but I'm not saying where it is. The land and house next to us has just gone up for sale. It consists of six-acres with a good-size pole barn, and a large old house. The house is not just large, it is huge, with six bedrooms and rooms in the attic. Unfortunately, the original house has been bastardized with additions and weird roof lines, is positioned up close to the road, and costs a small fortune to heat in the winter. The barn is, however, a halfway decent structure with a lot of potential (as a place to, among other things, expand my Whizbang Books business). The land is mostly field and includes a section of woods with a fast-flowing stream and numerous small waterfalls (it flows behind our house). The soil in the field is good. I used to grow garlic and potatoes there when a previous owner owned the property.
The same day the for-sale sign went up, we looked into buying it. The price is an astounding (to me) $185,000. The current owners paid $139,000 two years ago. They have not put much into the property. Taxes are about $4,200 a year.
Now we are faced with a decision. Do we buy the place, or not? We don’t want to live in the house. We just want some more acreage and that barn is appealing. At times like this, I wish I were a best-selling children’s book author (chicken plucker books just don’t compare).
I would have to get a mortgage to buy the property and if you have read much of my writings, you know I am averse to such a thing. So I am going to approach the owner and offer to purchase the lower three acres of land that borders my property. None of the last three owners of the property have done a thing with the land, though the current owner had plans to put in some sort of moto-cross track (and, thankfully, did not do so). It is unlikely that they will divide the property, but if I offer considerably more than it is worth (which I can afford to do without getting a loan), perhaps it will make it easier for them to sell the house and barn. The three acres would give me over 400 more feet of road frontage, a nice buffer between my house and theirs. Three more acres would triple the size of our current homestead. We shall see what develops.
Speaking of land and the acquisition of it (for homesteading or farming), Michael Bunker has written well about the subject in his most recent book chapter, which you can read here: Land, A Longing in the Heart
He’s In The Army Now
As mentioned in previous monthly letters, my oldest son, Chaz, joined the Army. He left for basic training in Oklahoma three weeks ago. We went to Hancock airport in Syracuse to say good-bye, and that is where the picture below was taken.
From the left is Robert, Chaz, Marlene, Me, and James (I don’t know who that guy on the movie screen behind us is). Here (below) is a picture Chaz sent us of himself (taken with a cell phone) two days after getting to basic training.
He was in some sort of orientation for the first week and is now into the real-deal of basic training (no cell phones allowed). His letters are upbeat and positive, even in the midst of difficulty, so we are pleased with that.
Big Beets From My Garden
My garden in August went from well-kept and delightful to look upon, to a veritable jungle of weeds and downright shameful in appearance. I was so occupied with my Whizbang Books business that I neglected to tend my garden as I should have. Even still, bad as it looks, the garden is full of good food. Here is a beet from my garden:
That beet is 5-1/2” wide and weighs just shy of four pounds (that's a quarter next to it). My beet is certainly no world record (like the 42-pound freakish beet this guy grew), but it is a big beet.
Big beets like that don't really look appetizing from the outside, and I once heard that if your beets get big, they get tough and don’t taste good. Well, I can tell you that my beets, of the size above, are not tough and taste great. One beet, boiled to doneness, and peeled of the outer skin, renders several 1/2" thick “beet steaks” like shown in this picture...
Those beet steaks are sweet and delicious!
Potatoes and onions have fared well here this growing season. But it is not a good tomato year and, for the first time in memory, my Concord grape vines have virtually no grapes on them. It is the same with other grape growers in the area. The cold and wet spring is to blame, or so I believe.
An Admirable Old Tool
I love useful old agrarian tools. And so I was very pleased when Marlene’s brother (mentioned above) gave me a Planet Jr. #4 walk-behind vegetable seed drill as a gift.
I happen to have a copy of the 1898 Planet Jr. tool catalog and the #4 is in there. I believe it was new that year. The original cost was $10. That is what my brother-in-law said he paid for it. The catalog says, in part, this of the #4:
It's great superiority to all other combined seeders, may be briefly stated to lie in its low price, large size, the perfection of its work as a seeder, the fact that it drops beautifully into hills as well as drills, and that it throws out of gear and cuts off the flow of seed instantly, by simply raising the handles."I spent some time with this old implement, figuring out how it’s supposed to work and if it is in working condition. Amazingly, the tool is completely intact and completely workable. The wood handles appear to be the only part that is not original and I can easily replace them with original-style Planet Jr. handles. I added a little oil to the working parts and the tool now functions as smoothly as if it were new.
The #4 will plant everything from corn and bean seeds to carrot, turnip, spinach and salsify. It can be adjusted for seed spacings from 4" to 24."
I will keep this useful old planter safe and dry in storage, and someday I hope to put it to good use.
Monsanto Is Evil
My family went to see the movie FOOD, Inc. a few days ago. It is an expose of the industrial food system. This movie "pushed all my buttons." It is worth seeing.
Part of the story is about Monsanto, the company that makes RoundUp herbicide. They also sell patented, genetically modified (GM) seeds. Part of the movie discussed the heavy-handed approach that Monsanto takes towards any farmer that dares to save his own seed (as farmers have done for centuries) for planting, instead of purchasing the GM seed from Monsanto.
Farmers who do not toe the line and buy their seed from Monsanto are subject to hired “goon squads” (my word) who roam the countryside looking for noncompliance. Farmers found to be saving seed for planting the next year are subject to litigation and almost certain ruin if they continue in their rebellion against the dictates of Monsanto; the company has the legal firepower to bring any farmer they target into line, or totally destroy them financially.
Amazingly, this devious company is also going after people with seed cleaning businesses, as explained in the movie. One fellow, Mo Parr, of Indiana, had an old mechanical seed cleaner that he towed behind his pickup to local farms. Farmers would run their harvested seed through the cleaner to remove chaff and weed seeds, then use the seed for planting the next year.
In the movie, Mr. Parr, and elderly man, relates that Indiana used to have several seed cleaners in every one of the state’s 92 counties. Now there might be six seed cleaners left in the whole state. Well, those few will be gone shortly (if they are not already) because Monsanto has seed cleaners in their sights. Mr. Parr was targeted by Monsanto and had to shut down his little business under the pressure of litigation.
Of course, the behemoth corporation has their own view of what they are doing to agriculture. From their perspective: ”Monsanto helps farmers grow food more efficiently and in a more sustainable manner.” Reading that makes me feel like gagging. Here is a link to the Monsanto internet propaganda pages. Or, more specifically, you can read this link: Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmer’s Who Save Seeds?
For another perspective, I invite you to read my essay: A Christian-Agrarian View of Genetic Modification. Also, directly related to this subject is my essay, They Are Not Human.
Oh, by the way, Joel Salatin is in the movie, and that is fun to see.
A Quintessential Agrarian Meal
Another sure sign that autumn is coming is that Marlene starts making soup again. And that is a welcome thing. My wife has basic homemade soups down to an art form. Two days ago we enjoyed a vegetable soup made with onion, green pepper, jalapeno pepper, potato, zucchini, tomatoes, summer squash, garlic, and a little bit of meat. All the vegetable ingredients were from our garden. Such simple fare, along with homemade whole wheat biscuits, is a delightful meal that our whole family appreciates.
It is the antithesis of Food, Inc.
"This Settled Way Of Life"
As Marlene and I were cutting up and putting away just-butchered chickens in our kitchen this last month, we talked about how many chickens we would need to raise next year (less than 62), and we wondered if we would be raising chickens like this for ourselves into our later years (yes). Marlene said that she couldn't raise and butcher chickens without me. Well, truth be told, I could not do this without her. We both play our necessary roles in the work of providing for ourselves and our family. To my way of thinking, it is an important reason why the Christian-agrarian life, properly lived, is supportive of strong marriage relationships and, thus, strong families (because all the children are necessary contributors too). Everyone is needed to make a "family economy" work.
I was reminded of Dr. Allan Carlson's excellent quote on the subject, which I included in my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian. Here it is:
Before the rise of modern industry, let us remember, virtually the whole of humankind lived in family-centered economies. The family was the locus of most productive activity, whether it be on largely self-sufficient family farms or in small family shops. In the United States of America, circa 1800, about 90 percent of the free population were farmers; most of the remaining ten percent were artisans or shopkeepers. Even these town dwellers normally kept a kitchen garden, chickens, and a cow. Husbands and wives relied on each other, needed each other, shared with each other, so that their small family enterprises might succeed. They specialized in their daily tasks, according to their respective skills. Marriage was still true here to its historic definition: a union of the sexual and the economic. Life for these Americans was little different from that of the hundreds of generations that had gone before. In a recent essay, anthropologist Hugh Brody ably captures the tone of this family-centric order:
A family is busy in the countryside. Mother is making bread, churning butter, attending to hens and ducks…, preparing food for everyone. Father is in the fields, ploughing the soil, cutting wood, fixing walls, providing sustenance. Children explore and play and help and sit at the family table. Grandma or grandpa sit in a chair by the fire. Every day is long and filled with the activities of this family….The family in its farm is the family where it belongs. A place of integration where work, play, childhood and age all share a safe and secure space. 
The industrial revolution of the 19th Century tore through this settled way-of-life....
Yes, it sure did. But those of us who are cognizant of the damage done, can take steps to return to a more settled way-of-life. Deliberate steps! You can read Allan Carlson's entire speech, from which the above excerpt comes, at this link: Love is Not Enough: Toward the Recovery of a Family Economics
I have been chronicling the growth of a hops seedling I planted earlier in the spring. It has grown and matured beautifully. Here is my hops in August:
I look forward to meeting with you again here at the end of September....